18 bright ideas for 2018, from flying taxis to companion robots

New technologies on the horizon will transform how we work and live.

Tesla's solar roof tiles look like slate shingles.

Designer solar 

If you want solar panels, you don’t necessarily need to make your home look as if it’s covered with cereal boxes. Many companies are developing technology that lets homeowners integrate photovoltaic cells right into their houses’ existing architecture. 

Tesla, the electric car innovator, makes solar tiles that look like ordinary roof shingles. The company has installed them on about a dozen homes so far, including that of the company’s founder, Elon Musk, and orders for more are already sold out well into 2018.

Meanwhile, a team of researchers at Michigan State University in East Lansing has developed transparent solar cells that capture invisible wavelengths of sunlight, meaning that they can double as windows. Scientists estimate that 75 billion square feet of windows exist in the United States, and that replacing them all with transparent solar panels could supply 40 percent of the nation’s energy.

And once your roof and windows are generating electricity, you might as well plug the rest of your house into the sun as well. A team of Australian researchers has developed solar-powered paint. It works by soaking up water vapor from the air and then using the energy from sunlight to split the water into oxygen and hydrogen gas. The collected hydrogen is used in fuel cells.

These technologies will take time to become affordable – the solar paint, for instance, isn’t expected to be commercially viable for a few years – but they represent the rise of solar as an increasingly practical energy source.

No hands on deck

Fully autonomous cars for the masses may still be years away, but unmanned transport may show up sooner in a different venue – on the wide-open seas. 

In Norway, Yara International plans to transport fertilizer via an electric-powered ship that would travel along the Trondheim Fjord. The ships are scheduled to be piloted by remote control in 2019 and to go fully autonomous the following year. This year in Copenhagen, Denmark, Rolls-Royce demonstrated an autonomous tugboat. And a Boston-based start-up, Sea Machines Robotics, is working on a container ship to move goods across the North Atlantic without a human at the helm.

Proponents say that autonomous ships offer several advantages over crewed ones: They are less prone to error, less vulnerable to piracy, and can be designed with larger carrying capacity. They could also offer a solution to the growing shortage of skilled maritime workers.

The ships will still need some human guidance: Workers at operations centers on land will monitor the vessels’ maritime environments and take control of the ships remotely when needed. But the automation of shipping will mean workers will no longer have to spend weeks or months away from home. Instead, the sailor’s life will be ... just another cubicle job.

Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters/File
Paro, a robotic harp seal, is designed to respond to touch, light, and sound like real animals. It was developed for use in nursing homes.

I, caregiver 

Seniors represent one of the fastest-growing demographic groups in the developed world, but demand for professional caregivers far outstrips supply. How can societies fill the gap? Consider a little silicon.

Traditionally, robots have been tasked with performing work that is dirty, dangerous, and dull. But a new generation of robots is emerging to meet a complex psychological need: companionship. 

Social robots, such as the Israeli-built ElliQ, help owners schedule appointments and stay in touch with friends and family by simplifying communication technology. The robot, which looks like a cross between a desk lamp and a bobblehead doll, sits on a stand next to an Android tablet. Billing itself as an “emotionally intelligent robotic companion,” ElliQ helps connect seniors with social media, video chats, and Facebook Messenger. It can learn its owner’s preferences, offering suggestions for books, entertainment, and outdoor activities. The device is set to become commercially available in 2018. 

Social robots already on the market include Jibo ($899), a household companion with advanced facial-
recognition technology, which can identify and address people by name. Paro ($5,000), a therapeutic robot modeled after a baby harp seal (pictured), is widely used in Japan as a relaxation aid for older people. Paro’s sensors detect light, sound, touch, and posture.

Companion robots need not be expensive: Hasbro’s “Joy for All” robotic cats and dogs, which purr, meow, bark, and wag their tails in response to sound and touch, retail for about $100. They’re used in nursing homes around the United States.

Looks do matter

Facial-recognition systems have been used for everything from stadium security to unlocking a phone. But humans, it turns out, aren’t the only ones with machine-readable mugs: US researchers have developed a system that can reliably distinguish the faces of red-bellied lemurs – the furry primates with eyes like headlights that are among the world’s most endangered mammals.

The system, called LemurFaceID, could enhance wildlife conservation efforts by allowing biologists to identify and track the animals, found only in the wilds of Madagascar, without having to sedate and tag them. The technology works by identifying the fur on the lemur’s face, and its inventors suspect it could be used to monitor other species with distinct facial fur patterns, such as red pandas, raccoons, and sloths.

Already, scientists have used facial recognition with fish. In 2016, the Nature Conservancy’s FishFace project received a $750,000 prize from Google to develop a smartphone app that could be used on fishing boats worldwide. The technology could offer a low-cost way to manage fisheries, allowing more precise monitoring of stocks and better tracking of declining species.

Brandon Pollock/The Courier/AP/File
A farmer demonstrates a robotic harvester near Plainfield, Iowa.

Digital farming 

Quick: Which country is the second-largest food exporter in the world behind the United States? Surprisingly, it’s the Netherlands.

The country has become a global produce rack even though it is 1/270th the size of the US and lies at the same latitude as Newfoundland. It has achieved this by being in the forefront of the “precision farming” revolution.

Around the world, farmers are increasingly tapping new technologies to increase yields. Drones and satellites provide infrared and thermal imagery that measure the photosynthesis rates of crops. Sensors embedded in fields relay moisture levels and allow farmers to remotely control their irrigation pumps from their smartphones. Even the farmer’s trusty water bucket has gone high-tech: The WatchDog wireless rainfall collector measures temperature and rainfall down to a hundredth of an inch – turning farmers into instant meteorologists.

All of this data can be aggregated to help growers divine when and where to plant seeds, spread fertilizer and lime, and spritz fields with pesticides. The monitoring reduces both labor costs and environmental waste.

The Dutch have pushed digital farming as far as anyone. Starting in the 1990s, scientists, businesses, and the government launched a concerted effort to produce twice the food with half the resources. Their efforts have paid off: By embracing efficient technologies and sustainable practices, the Netherlands now produces more tomatoes, potatoes, onions, carrots, pears, cucumbers, and peppers per square mile than any other nation.

To the airport, quickly

Imagine combining the velocity of a high-speed train with the personal comfort of your car. Put another way, how about zipping to the airport in your own private pod at 200 miles per hour? 

That may soon happen on the wind-swept prairie outside Denver. The Los Angeles-based company Arrivo is planning to lay magnetized tracks alongside existing freeways to propel several different kinds of pods: some that carry people, some that haul cargo, and some that ferry cars on flatbed sleds. Proponents say the system will reduce traffic congestion by doing the work of five to 10 freeway lanes.

Arrivo has partnered with the Colorado Department of Transportation to build a half-mile test track near Denver International Airport. It’s part of a feasibility study to connect the airport to a business district in Aurora, a suburb of Denver about 10 miles away. Arrivo plans to begin construction in 2019, and says the transit system may be operational as early as 2021.

The project will use technology similar to the magnetic levitation trains that operate in Europe and Asia. Known as floating trains, they tap the power of supermagnets to lift rail cars and propel them down tracks. Maglev trains in China regularly travel at more than 260 m.p.h., while the Japanese have tested one that hit 375 m.p.h.

Even more advanced is the idea of hurtling passengers through vacuum tubes where there is no air resistance. Elon Musk envisions one day whisking passengers at 700 m.p.h. between San Francisco and Los Angeles with his Hyperloop, a segment of which is currently being built in the Nevada desert. Not to be outdone, China is researching a vacuum-tube train that it hopes will reach 2,500 m.p.h. But these transit systems are years, if not decades, away.

Moonshots 2.0 

The moon is beckoning humans once again. Several lunar missions are planned for 2018 – and this time private industry will be in the mix. India and China both plan to send unmanned missions to the moon, while five privately funded teams are vying for $30 million offered by the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition. 

The money will go to the first team to land a robot on the moon that travels 550 yards and transmits high-
definition video and images back to Earth. The teams are to complete their lunar missions by March 31, 2018.

Additionally, SpaceX, another of Elon Musk’s initiatives, aims to send two space tourists in orbit around the moon sometime in late 2018. They will fly aboard one of the firm’s Dragon 2 space capsules. The company is set to launch its first crewed mission in August, ferrying NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.

A soft pedal

Electric bicycles have been around since the 1890s, but they have long had a reputation of being ungainly, expensive, and heavy. Now advanced sensors and control systems are reviving the e-bike’s image – and its practicality as a form of urban transport in an era of irrepressible traffic congestion. 

Superpedestrian, an e-bikemaker in Cambridge, Mass., has created the Copenhagen Wheel, which looks like a rear bicycle wheel with an oversized red disc as the hub. It uses data from sensors to estimate the torque, cadence, and position of the pedals to emulate the feel of riding a normal bike, only with far less effort, since the battery is doing most of the work.

“E-bikes will really get going when they start to feel like regular bikes, but the riders become superhuman,” says Assaf Biderman, Superpedestrian’s chief executive officer. “That’s when we know we’ve nailed it.”

The $1,500 wheel can be purchased as a replacement rear wheel for a standard bicycle. The company also sells bikes with the wheel built in.

Other e-vehicles are blurring the line between bike and car. The egg-shaped ELF, produced by the Durham, N.C., company Organic Transit, sports three wheels and an enclosed cab with solar panels on the roof. Retailing for about $9,000, it is powered by a combination of pedals and a solar-powered rechargeable battery. Two other bike/cars are plying roads in Germany – the Twike, a fully enclosed electric vehicle, and the four-wheeled Schaeffler Bio-Hybrid, which looks like a cross between a baby buggy and an all-terrain vehicle. It can be propelled by pedal power, batteries, or both at once.

Tailored TV 

Ever want to be Steven Spielberg – create your own narrative? Now you can, in a way, with Mosaic, a murder-mystery app that allows you to choose which characters’ perspectives you want to follow.

Available on iTunes and Android platforms, Mosaic is a $20 million interactive online series directed by Steven Soderbergh. It stars  Sharon Stone. The app also offers supplementary materials – police reports, voice mail, news clippings – for the viewer to explore, and you can always go back and rewatch the story from another character’s perspective. Mr. Soderbergh’s cut is set to air on HBO in January 2018.

Mosaic is part of a trend that is expected to grow in the future – interactive TV. Already, in 2017, two Netflix children’s shows – “Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale” and an episode of “Buddy Thunderstruck” – offer young viewers choices of different plots to follow as the series progresses.

Slicker cities

Cities of the future will be fitted with sensors that allow residents to instantly monitor everything from traffic to noise to air pollution. Roads will throb with autonomous vehicles – “taxibots” and “vanbots.” Garbage will be whisked away in underground vacuum tubes, and homes will be as wired as Los Alamos National Laboratory.

That, at least, is the vision of many urban planners, elements of which are emerging today.

In October, Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet, the company that owns Google, announced that it will commit $50 million to redesigning 12 acres of waterfront in Toronto as a “smart city.” Rechristened as Quayside, the neighborhood will be carpeted with sensors; road design will prioritize pedestrians, cyclists, and self-driving cars; and construction will emphasize prefabricated structures built with eco-friendly timber and plastic. If all goes well, the company will expand the project to 800 acres.

Billionaire Bill Gates is getting involved in the city-of-tomorrow movement, too. The former head of Microsoft plans to invest $80 million in a smart city on 25,000 acres on the western edge of Phoenix. Called Belmont, the community will include 80,000 homes.

“Belmont will create a forward-thinking
community with a communication and infrastructure spine that embraces cutting-edge technology, designed around high-speed digital networks, data centers, new manufacturing technologies and distribution models, autonomous vehicles and autonomous logistics hubs,” says Belmont Partners, a real estate investment group that is developing the land.

Another futuristic city that will soon be getting more visibility, when the Olympics open in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February, is the Songdo International Business District. The 1,500-acre site, built on land reclaimed from the Yellow Sea 45 miles southwest of Seoul, features energy-efficient buildings, electric vehicle charging stations, and pneumatic waste-disposal systems.

Flying cabs

Uber may soon live up to its German name. The ride-hailing company says it will be testing flying taxi services in two cities – Los Angeles and Dallas/Fort Worth – beginning in 2020, with an eye toward offering its first commercial flights in 2023. The company expects to be operating thousands of flights each day by the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. 

Uber envisions a fleet of electric flying vehicles equipped with multiple rotors that could take off and land vertically and reach speeds of as much as 200 miles per hour. It has partnered with a real estate investment company to develop 20 rooftop terminals in Los Angeles.

No stranger to regulatory battles, Uber recognizes that adding hundreds of on-
demand aircraft to already congested skies poses a huge challenge. Thus it has contracted with NASA to help develop an air traffic management system.

The firm sees the service as a way of making cities more livable. But skeptics point out that aircraft capable of vertical takeoff and landing have been historically unreliable and expensive. At best, they see them as an annoyance and at worst a danger to people on the ground. Besides, if an airborne taxi service were really such a great idea, critics note, wouldn’t Uber be trying it with existing aircraft?

Printing homes 

3-D printing has been used to create everything from jet airliner components to custom-fit shoes. Many experts say the process of turning digital files into three-dimensional objects could ultimately usher in a new industrial revolution. 

One of the latest manifestations of 3-D wizardry: building houses. It’s an application that could transform construction practices that have remained unchanged for centuries. 

Using a swiveling robotic arm that extrudes concrete, a San Francisco company, Apis Cor, 3-D printed the concrete walls for a 400-square-foot house in Russia in less than 24 hours in early 2017. And researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge have built a robotic arm and a vehicle that dispenses concrete for a 50-foot-diameter, 12-foot-high dome in less than 14 hours.

The technology could greatly speed up the construction of homes and reduce the waste. Construction refuse accounts for half of all solid waste in the United States. 

Robot-printed houses might also prove useful if humans ever try to colonize Mars or other areas of the cosmos. In November, NASA opened the third phase of its 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge, offering a $2 million prize for inventors who can print a foundation and a small home using indigenous materials.

Purer water 

If you have a water filter in your refrigerator or on your kitchen faucet, you know it comes with one major drawback: The filter often has to be replaced.

Researchers at Princeton University in New Jersey have developed a way to clean water that may get around this problem: Infuse it with gas. It works by injecting carbon dioxide into a stream of water. When CO2 is dissolved in water, it creates ions that generate a small electric field. Because most contaminants have a surface charge, the electric field can split the stream into two channels, one carrying the contaminants and one containing clean water.

The researchers say that their method is 1,000 times as efficient as conventional filtration systems. They believe it could be useful in providing more sources of potable water in the developing world because of its low cost and low maintenance requirements. The technology could also find use in filtering water at desalination plants and water treatment facilities.

Courtesy of Dr. Matthew Large
A wafer of Graphene.

Wonder wafer 

Graphene has been heralded as the next wonder material. A form of carbon that consists of a single layer of atoms, it is stronger than steel, harder than diamond, lighter than paper, and more conductive than copper. 

It is currently being used in everything from electronics to high-tech tennis rackets. It may one day lead to smartphones as thin as paper that can be folded up and put in your pocket.

A team of physicists at the University of Sussex in England has for the first time combined silver nanowires with graphene to create a bendable, shatterproof touch screen. Because of graphene’s high conductivity, the screens could be more responsive and use far less power. They may be crucial to creating a new generation of credit-card-size phones.

New tools for firefighters 

Firefighters are adopting technology that seems straight out of science fiction. For many departments in the United States, the toolkit includes the FIT-5, a grenade-like canister that douses flames with a potassium bicarbonate powder. It extinguishes flames better than water. Other departments are turning to PyroLance, a device that can shoot a high-pressure stream of water through concrete and steel to put out fires in inaccessible parts of buildings.

In the future, firefighters may bypass water altogether. Two engineering students at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., have developed a way to put out a fire using sound waves. The low-frequency waves from bass sounds push air away from the burning material to obliterate the flames. At Harvard University, a team has developed a wand that beams an electric current at fire to disrupt the combustion at the molecular level.

Other innovations are focused on firefighters’ mobility. This year, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, issued water-powered jetpacks to its fire crews to help them get around danger zones more easily. Ken Chen, a designer at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, has designed an exoskeleton – a wearable mobile machine – to help firefighters bound up the stairs of tall buildings and carry heavy loads.

A translator in your ear

Learning a foreign language has always been a culturally enriching experience as well as a benchmark of worldly sophistication: Wouldn’t we all like to casually drop into a conversation that we speak five languages? In the future, that may not matter.

Companies are coming closer to creating a universal translator – which, for better or worse, may obviate the need to Deutsch sprechen or parle français

Google is among those leading the way. Its Google Translate service, launched in 2006, now offers real-time translation in more than 100 languages, from Afrikaans to Zulu. By combining the company’s new earpieces with the Pixel 2 phone, it puts a translator in a person’s ear.

Users press a button on the earbuds, speak in their native language, and the phone vocalizes the translation. Replies are then translated back. Sure, the conversations are somewhat halting – the devices are hardly as adept at translating languages as C-3PO from “Star Wars.” But they are quicker than fumbling through a translation dictionary.

‘AR’ you ready?

Augmented reality technology gained widespread attention in 2016 with the release of Pokémon Go, a location-based smartphone game that drew hordes of participants to public places. But gaming isn’t the only industry being transformed by AR, which superimposes a computer-generated image on a user’s view of the real world.

Home furnishing companies such as Cambria, IKEA, and Wayfair are using the technology to help consumers visualize what their couches and beds would look like in their homes. Mercedes-Benz offers an AR app for smartphones to replace traditional owners manuals. The cosmetics retailer MAC uses AR-enabled mirrors to paint their customers’ faces in virtual makeup.

The rise of AR could herald the return of smart glasses, which in the past were hampered by limited functionality and the awkwardness of wearing a bulky appendage. Google Glass Enterprise Edition, designed for the workplace, is currently being used in dozens of industrial settings. Companies such as General Electric, Boeing, and Volkswagen are reporting huge gains in productivity as workers wearing the glasses can, for instance, see step-by-step instructions of how to assemble a jet engine or install a trunk lid. A report by Forrester predicts that by 2025 nearly 14.4 million US workers will be wearing smart glasses.

Curbing global warming with fans

Climate change is caused mostly by human activity emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Part of the solution may lie in extracting the harmful pollutants from the air – and then recycling them in useful ways.

That, at least, is what the Swiss company Climeworks is banking on. On the roof of a recycling center outside Zurich, Switzerland, 18 fans suck in the surrounding air. Chemically coated filters absorb the carbon dioxide. When they are saturated, the filters are heated to produce pure CO2, which is pumped into a nearby greenhouse where it helps vegetables grow bigger. Climeworks estimates that its fans are about 1,000 times as efficient as photosynthesis, which draws carbon out of the atmosphere and turns it into plant material.

Climeworks was the first to commercially capture CO2 from ambient air, but it is just one of many companies around the world pursuing carbon capture as a way of mitigating climate change. Carbon Engineering, backed by Bill Gates, is testing air capture at a facility in British Columbia. New York-based Global Thermostat has two pilot plants drawing CO2 from the air and power-plant flues.

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